Israel is intensifying its campaign to thwart Iran’s nuclear, missile and drone programs with a series of covert operations targeting a broader range of key targets, said people familiar with the effort.
The new moves are the latest evolution of a strategy that has been dubbed the Octopus Doctrine by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who aims to bring Israel’s battle against Iran onto Iranian territory after years of targeting Iranian agents and Tehran’s proxies outside the country in places such as Syria.
“In the past year, the state of Israel has taken action against the head of the terrorist octopus and not just against the arms as was done in previous decades,” Mr. Bennett told a parliamentary committee earlier this month. “The days of immunity, in which Iran attacks Israel and spreads terrorism via its regional proxies but remains unscathed, are over,” he said.
Israel has stepped up the campaign in the past year, with strikes using small drones to hit Iranian nuclear facilities and an attack on an Iranian drone base, according to the people briefed on the campaigns. Iran blamed Israel for last month’s killing in Tehran of a top Iranian military officer that the Israelis suspected of running overseas hit teams targeting Israelis.
The recent deaths of a small number of Iranians involved in the country’s nuclear and military research programs have also raised questions as to whether Israel was responsible for them.
After focusing its covert efforts on Iran’s nuclear program for years, Israel is expanding its campaign with the recognition that Iran has already made considerable progress in producing weapons-grade uranium, according to the people. The aim now is to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear warhead and missile that could carry it, they said.
Israel’s expanded campaign has fueled the long-running shadow war with Iran, which has responded to the stepped-up attacks inside its country with a new push to target Israelis around the world, according to Israeli leaders.
After failed Iranian attempts in recent years to target Israeli civilians around the world, including in Africa, Asia and South America, Israel has been warning its civilians not to travel to Turkey, especially Istanbul, due to an immediate threat posed to them by Iranian units looking to harm Israelis.
Israeli concerns reached a fever pitch on Friday night when Israeli officials in the Hebrew media advised Israeli tourists in Istanbul to stay in their rooms and not answer the door to strangers amid a warning that Iran had given the go-ahead for a deadly attack in Turkey.
On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that more than two weeks after Israel assigned its highest risk level to travel to Turkey, Israelis traveling there would still be in danger.
“The State of Israel is operating to thwart Iranian attempts to conduct terror attacks against Israeli citizens located in Turkey, and is prepared to respond decisively to any threat,” Mr. Gantz tweeted on Saturday.
Ram Ben-Barak, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israeli media Sunday that there are still Iranian cells in Istanbul who have the “sole purpose to catch an Israeli and kill him.” Mr. Ben-Barak said Israel believes the suspected cells include locals working for them.
Former Israeli security officials said Iran was likely looking to take revenge for the recent killings of prominent Iranians connected to the country’s military efforts.
Mohammadali Jafari, a former commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, recently told Tasnim news agency that Tehran was covertly hitting back at Israel whenever Israel hits Iran.
“If the Zionist regime executes one operation, they know that they receive multiple responses,” he said.
Mr. Bennett made it clear that Israel would do everything to foil those terrorist attacks. “We won’t hesitate to use the state of Israel’s power anywhere in the world to protect our citizens,” he said Tuesday.
“The gloves are off,” said one person familiar with the Israeli campaign. “There is a recognition that, while Iran may have mastered the fuel cycle, they haven’t mastered warhead development.”
The threats in Turkey are the latest manifestation of Israel’s clandestine war with Iran, a yearslong campaign that continues to expand to new battlegrounds.
Israel has carried out more than 400 airstrikes against Iran and its allies in Syria since 2017. Most recently, Russia and Syria accused Israel of carrying out an airstrike earlier this month that shut down the international airport in Damascus. Israel and Iran have each used mines to hit their rival’s ships in waters across the Middle East. Israel says it has shot down advanced drones sent from Iran.
Iran, in turn, has accused Israel of carrying out a massive airstrike on one of its drone facilities and retaliated for the strike by firing missiles at a compound in northern Iraq that Tehran said had been used by Mossad agents to organize the attack. Israel has used drones and sabotage—including cyberattacks—to target Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
The continued escalation suggests that the Israeli covert campaign has failed to meet its objectives in stopping or seriously damaging Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon and extend its influence across the region, some analysts say.
“It is not having a strategic effect,” said Danny Citrinowicz, who once served as head of the Iran branch for Israeli military intelligence and is now a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. “We are very close to escalation with Iran. At the end of the day, the Iranians will have their revenge—and what will happen next?”
The evolution of the Israeli policy comes as U.S.-led efforts to broker a new deal to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities with Iran appear to be on the brink of collapse. Iran has removed surveillance cameras from various nuclear-related sites across the country and expanded its advanced centrifuge work, triggering warnings from U.N. officials that any new deal may soon be impossible to seal.
The mysterious deaths in recent weeks of at least six Iranian men involved in the country’s military and nuclear programs have also raised questions as to whether Israel was responsible for them.
Israel hasn’t taken responsibility for the deaths. Iran has called some of them martyrs, meaning they died in the line of duty, and vowed revenge. Israeli officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. Iranian officials declined to comment.
One of the latest Iranians to die in mysterious circumstances after falling ill was Ayoub Entezari, a young aerospace scientist who worked on building drones, missiles and airplanes, according to a relative, Mahmoud Entezari. Mahmoud Entezari said Ayoub Entezari was upset and worried about his safety after his image appeared on state television in 2019 with the Iranian president at the opening of an industrial turbine plant in Yazd.
Ayoub Entezari, along with two other Iranians suspected of being recently killed by Israel, had expertise that could link them to either Iran’s nuclear or missile programs, according to Ronen Solomon, an independent Israeli intelligence analyst and editor of the blog Intelli Times, who based his assessment on Mr. Entezari’s published work and academic background.
Kamran Aghamolaei, 31, was an Iranian geologist who fell ill earlier this month and soon died. Mr. Aghamolaei, Mr. Solomon said, had, according to his publicly available academic scholarship, the skills needed to find underground sites for nuclear testing. In the early 2000s, Iran had searched for nuclear testing sites, according to the documents from their nuclear archive stolen from the country by Israeli agents in 2018 and studied by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
Mohammad Abdous, 32, who died on June 12, was said to be “martyred” in the line of duty in the northern province of Semnan, the Iranian Defense Ministry said in its official news website defanews.ir, but didn’t provide the cause of death.
Mr. Abdous was identified by the Fars news agency—which is close to security forces—as an employee of Semnan aerospace center, where Iran has launched homemade rockets and satellites in the past years.
“According to all that we see from Iran, Israel has succeeded in creating a frontal base from which it can support complex operations inside Iran using a variety of means,” said Mr. Solomon.
Israel also appears to be expanding its campaign to target Iranians involved in attempts to target Israelis around the world.
Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer who was recently shot and killed outside his Tehran home, led the group’s efforts to kill opponents of Iran around the world, including recent failed plots to kill Israelis, according to people familiar with the matter.
In response to the killing, Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Tehran would exact its revenge. “The enemy, from the heart of the White House and Tel Aviv, followed him for months and years, door-to-door and alley-to-alley to kill him…God willing we will take revenge,” he said.